Many people are casual fans of Jesus. They aren’t comfortable with words like devotion, discipleship, adoration, or worship…those words sound extreme and fanatical. Jesus is alright. They assume that Jesus is just fine with their indifference, because well, He’s Jesus. People like Jesus, because Jesus is quite likable. Behind this casual appreciation for Jesus is often a picture of Jesus that is either lazy, uninformed, or both. Sometimes this is the result of recreating Jesus in our own image. We value our comfort above everything, so we want to imagine that Jesus will value our comfort over everything too. We just ignore the things about Jesus that make us uncomfortable. If we ignore them, maybe they will just go away? We want to be happy, so we create in our imaginations a Jesus that wants us to be happy above all. We like to feel good, so we want Jesus to be concerned with our good feelings. The trouble is, we won’t encounter our counterfeit Jesus in the pages of scripture. This safe and sanitized version of Jesus just isn’t there. No government would have ever bothered to crucify such an innocuous individual. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels was controversial. He was a dissident. Jesus was a revolutionary that taught dangerous and extreme ideas about God, life, and culture. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels talked about God in such a way that He was labeled a blasphemer by the religious leaders. He fought hard against injustice and challenged the leadership and culture of His day. Jesus had a way of comforting the afflicted and unsettling the comfortable. Each of us is faced when we truly look at Jesus with a polarizing choice: adoration or rejection. It is very hard to stay safely and comfortably in the middle. Jesus is not safe, but He is good. Jesus is not tame, but He is beautiful. Mark’s Gospel paints this picture well in the following narrative.
Mark 11:12-21 –
12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.
19 When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
A few things are pretty shocking about this passage. First, it seems out of character for the sugar and spice and everything nice version of Jesus to blast a poor innocent tree with holy wrath. He is hungry, and wants some breakfast, but the tree doesn’t want to cooperate. It becomes worse when Mark’s Gospel implies that it is not the time for the tree to produce fruit. If something was wrong with the tree, it would be a little more bearable, but to curse a tree that isn’t even supposed to have fruit yet? That is just unreasonable. I think the general idea is that the time to bear fruit is when Jesus comes looking for it, but I also think there is more to this passage. I don’t think Jesus is really mad at the tree. I think his anger is directed someplace else. The way the narrative of the tree is interrupted by the events of Jesus’ visit to the temple give us a literary clue. The fig tree forms a literary frame for the story of the temple. What Jesus is really raging about is the fruitless and corrupt state of affairs he finds at the temple. Jesus cannot abide the empty, self-focused, and exploitative religion he observed in the temple of Jerusalem. This reminds me of Martin Luther’s visit to Rome. People are looking for God, and instead of finding God they find a door closed in their faces and all kinds of hoops to jump through. What if Jesus visited your church today? Would he hate our religious constructions? Would Jesus tear apart our temple remind us of the truth of the Kingdom of God?
Here is one thing I think Jesus would challenge: Any religion where comfort gets in the way of mission.
The issue with the fig tree is that it didn’t produce fruit when Jesus required it. The faith of the Jews needed to be reformed. It had become something that was focused inwardly, on the comfort and care of people that looked down on outsiders and relished in their privileged status. What is the fruit Jesus is looking for? I think there is a clue in a detail that Mark includes. Mark includes this phrase: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” This would make much more sense if we were present when Jesus said it, but because we are not we need to understand something of the geography of the temple. It consists of several different courts. The outermost court was called the gentile court, followed by the women’s court, then Israel’s court, then the priests’ court, and finally the holy place and the most holy place. This action of selling livestock and changing money is happening in the Gentile Court. They were providing a legitimate service to pilgrims from all over the world that have come to sacrifice at the Temple. This is about convenience. It would be easy to exploit the poor pilgrims, and that makes Jesus angry, but there is something else going on here. Jesus’ rebuke includes the phrase “prayer for all nations.” This is reminiscent of the call of Abraham, where he and his descendants were invited into a unique relationship with God, where they would be blessed by God to be a blessing to all the nations of the world. What is going on here illustrates how far Israel is from the heart of God and from their covenant. This court is the ONLY place a seeking Gentile could come and experience the presence of the God of Israel. Now, slowly, their sacred place of worship has become a market for the convenience of the “elite” and the “chosen.” The only place where a Gentile can come and pray and seek the one true God is now filled with the sounds of a shopping mall! This is the only place he is allowed to set foot, everything else is “off limits” to him. What they have done in the temple is to shut out any seeking Gentiles from the presence of God. They have become so focused on themselves; their own needs and convenience that they have forgotten their commission to reach the world for the one true God. Jesus is angry because those seeking God were being shut out from his presence.
I wish this didn’t happen in churches today, but the truth is that far too often the language and programming are built exclusively for the insider. We make the tragic mistake of excluding outsiders for the sake of making things more comfortable and convenient for the insiders. We often program and message and operate in a fashion that is only accessible to those familiar with the church subculture. I wonder what the Jesus of the Gospels would have to say about that. Which of our tables would he overthrow? Would he rage against our men’s prayer breakfast, our “Christian” concerts, our merchandising, and our celebrity worship? Would Jesus find a space where skeptical, curious, and seeking outsiders could come to have questions answered and feel close to the God that they long to meet? Would Jesus find your church to be concerned with the outsiders or with the insiders? I think Jesus would unsettle the people safely hiding within the subculture we have created. I think Jesus would rattle us a bit, reminding us about God’s concern for those far from Him. God cares much more about you engaging your culture than about protecting your comfort.